Though he’s a New Jersey native, Christopher Infantino attended the University of Maryland, College Park, and grew to love Columbia after working as a waiter in local restaurants 15 years ago during college.
In June 2011, with a passion for the restaurant business but no previous entrepreneurial experience, he launched Tino’s Italian Bistro, located off Centre Park Drive.
“I had always wanted to do this, and when Strapazza closed in 2010 it was the perfect opportunity,” says Infantino, who has made Howard County his home.
He acknowledged it probably seemed like a risky venture for a first-timer to take over a location where another restaurant had failed. Yet, he was undeterred.
Armed with Italian recipes handed down five generations to his mother, he dipped into his savings and took the plunge.
Even more confounding to some, the restaurant isn’t Infantino’s full-time job. He graduated in 1998 with a degree in kinesiology, but his background is in banking. At age 38, he is a senior vice president at Federal Savings Bank.
A year after opening the bistro, Infantino -- who people often mistakenly assume is nicknamed “Tino” -- came up with the idea for Foundation Mondays as a way to give back to the community. The concept has become so popular that the restaurant is booked through February, and Tino’s is on track this year to donate $30,000 to 40 organizations.
The idea was inspired in part by his former fiancee, Kylee Webster, who was diagnosed two years ago with soft-tissue sarcoma, a type of cancer that is more prevalent in children, according to Infantino. On Oct. 11, Webster lost her battle.
The first-time restaurateur also wanted to emulate the example set by his father, Jerry, who has spent 30 years working as a volunteer fundraiser for local sports teams and public schools in New Jersey.
“Even though my brother and I haven’t played sports in Westfield for over 20 years, he still keeps going,” Infantino says of his dad, now 72 and still working as a garbage collector. “He’s amazing.”
Word of mouth quickly ignited local interest in the Tino’s fundraisers “and the idea just exploded,” Infantino says.
Sponsored organizations receive 10 percent of all of the restaurant’s proceeds for the entire day, not just from the dining room during limited hours as many fundraisers stipulate. Included in the donation are sales of catered, delivered and carryout foods as well as wine.
“You’ll never find a family-run, individual restaurant my size that does what I do,” he says, referring to the chain restaurants that hold fundraisers. The bistro seats 110 and employs a staff of 45, who mostly work part time.
Robert Jones, who also is a senior vice president at Federal Savings Bank, says, “Chris could have copied the standard idea and everyone would have been satisfied, but it is truly in his heart to help people.”
Jones, who knew Kylee Webster and called her “an amazing woman,” says there’s a genuine excitement in his colleague’s voice when he talks about the event’s success.
“Making money is one thing, but when you can give back it comes back to you tenfold,” he says. “Chris is very, very deserving of all of the accolades.”
Aside from donating 10 percent of the proceeds, Tino’s allows sponsored organizations to set up information tables and to make the event their own.
Wendy Letow, executive director of The Little Things for Cancer, has held a Foundation Monday event for her organization, which helps cancer patients and caregivers with personal needs to improve their quality of life.
“It takes someone like Chris to take something horrific and turn it into something positive for the community,” she says. “We have taken advantage of every opportunity he offered us by hosting celebrity bartenders and holding 50-50 raffles.
“It’s good for his business as well,” she notes. “He understands partnerships, so it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
Infantino says that if demand continues to grow, he would consider adding another night to benefit local organizations.
“We could push this into an additional day,” he speculates. “Everything about it has been great.”